Thursday, 5 July 2012
A Royal Air Force Hercules drop plane flying in the distant, over Salisbury Plain, sends what appear to be stone obelisks falling to earth in a patterned array. The familiar sight and its payloads are regular visitors to the Plain, an ancient landscape, where little has been added, apart from the occasional barn or aircraft hanger. Like the aircraft, its other military companions are also seemingly born out of necessity and the pragmatic application of technology. Untethered to any particular place these regular visitors allow observers to date, in identified architectural details, what is otherwise a timeless landscape.
Modern architects rarely credit the rural landscape as inspiration for fear of revoking traditions and craft that essentially predate the emergence of the architect. The Arcadian rural idyll has hardly ever been uttered in the same breath as architecture, always seen as too primitive, and kept at bay by patterns of occupation first established by monastic wallgardens, farmyards and later examples of English country house and garden.
Architect Herbert Tayler (b.1912) writing in 1959,“Landscape is more than a pretty titivation of the earth’s surface, and it is a deep subconscious need. There is nothing fanciful about this and luckily most people recognise it quite simply in their love of gardens and plants and of the countryside.” At the same time he was careful not to attribute any excess sentimentality to countryside living. Explaining in his 1960 lecture to the Architectural Association how a ploughman when asked his thoughts about ploughing replied, “Well marm, I sits and looks at this bleedin ‘field and then I blasts it”.
Embedded in the 700 rural houses built by Tayler and Green(1938-1973) in Loddon, Norfolk -prototype for national housing – is a pervading sense of occupied landscape. The rural influence of the Swedish architect Gunnar Asplund (1885-1940),in particular the Holiday House, Stennas Sweden (1937), reflected a post-war popular interest in Scandinavian architecture also promoted by the Architectural Review, who labelled it ‘The New Empiricism’ (1949). For Tayler and Green, echoes of Scandinavia existed in the landscape where North of the Waveney the streams cut into the clay fields are still referred to as ‘becks’, a legacy of the earlier Danish colonists.
The International Style, a major architectural movement of the 1920s and 1930s spearheaded by the work of Le Corbusier in France and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius in Germany, had become the dominant style in Western architecture of the middle decades of the 20th century. In Scandinavia, its lessons had soon been grafted to a substructure of national building traditions infused with a sensitive handling of locale, landscape, light and natural materials. Here the conditions that molded Modernism were different from elsewhere in Europe: industrialisation had less of a drastic impact; timber was plentiful and the rural vernacular was a continuing point of reference. Scandinavia Moderns included Alvar Aalto (1885–1976) in Finland and ArneJacobsen (1902-71) in Denmark, both of whom had been tutored by Asplund. The demands for climate ensured that modernism could not be an excuse for poor detailing or construction and national traditions valued architecture enough to want to invest in it.
This national sense of the rural pervades in the work of Danish architect, Arne Jacobsen and his design for a new post-war undergraduate college. St Catherine’s College (1962), built on an Oxford meadow was described by critic Sir NikolausPevsner in his ‘Buildings of England’ as, ‘a perfect piece of architecture. It has a consistent plan, and every detail is meticulously worked out. Self-discipline is its message, expressed in terms of a geometry pervading the whole and the parts and felt wherever one moves or stops.’ Reyner Banham who worked with Pevsner on the Architectural Review called it in 1964 "the best motel in Oxford. With 130 new bedrooms, and slightly wider beds, it is time to check into St Catherine's north quad".
A keen gardener, Jacobsen was instinctively drawn to subtle hues of green in his architecture that included specifying all planting for the college quad, deliberately omitting anything that would flower. The St Catherine’s College grid further unified and was something reliable and timeless, both beneath and on the surface of things. For Jacobsen, the modern glass façade of each of the student study bedrooms was not to expose modernist qualities. Blinds were requested to remain closed, so as to reflect the surround trees in the landscape, many of whichwere taller than the two-storey college buildings. Jacobsen’s designs varied the composition of elemental components in a similar way to painter, Graham Sutherland, whose work described by artist George Shaw (b.1968) uses, ‘Horizon lines fold into foregrounds. The vertical becomes the horizontal. What was solid becomes fluid. What was on the surface is buried and what was buried emerges into the air. What was in the light at the present day becomes hidden as history claims the view as though it was the weather’.
The influence of landscape and its inherent praxis ‘the festival’, or indeed the military exercise, is apparent in, ‘The Walking City’(1964) by Ron Herron (b.1930-1994) of agit-pop architects Archigram. The Walking City constituted intelligent buildings or robots as giant, self-contained living pods that could roam. The form derived from a combination of insect and machine and was a literal interpretation of Corbusier's aphorism of a house as a machine for living in. The pods were independent, yet parasitic as they could 'plug in' to way stations to exchange occupants or replenish resources. The citizen is a serviced nomad made by a future ruined world in the aftermath of a Cold War nuclear attack.
The Walking City exhibits some of the qualities found in‘Terminal Architecture’ (1998), by Martin Pawley (b.1938-2008) in which car and house were part of the same mechanism. Motorways, ‘Like houses, too big, too expensive, too old. It all got out of control. They just closed them down in 2025 and everybody drove directly to where they wanted to go,….no houses, noroads. Terminals. Four wheel drives. All-Terrain-Vehicles (ATV’s). You know it makes sense.’ For Pawley, technology will allow architecture to answer pragmatic and human needs in reply to spiralling national economic decline, the result of bankrupted nations.